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Sexism Alive and Well in North Dakota Courts

We all know there is bias in the family court system, usually against fathers. But generally it’s merely anecdotal evidence. That has changed with a study out of North Dakota which analyzes custody decisions by individual judges. Leading Women for Shared Parenting, which I am a member of, obtained the raw data on custody determinations in the state from January 2011 through mid-June of 2017.

Overall, the study found that mothers have a 5 to 1 advantage (70 percent vs. 14 percent) over fathers in North Dakota family courts when it comes to child custody. Over 70 percent of court-determined cases award custody to the mother. And the problem is only becoming worse. Instead of custody decisions becoming fairer in recent years, which would seem a likely development due to evidence spreading that children fare better with both parents, there has been a trend of increasingly awarding custody to the mother. Court-ordered shared parenting or custody to the father is decreasing. In 2011, in over 16 percent of the cases North Dakota courts ordered shared joint custody. By 2017, that percentage dropped to just 10.5 percent.

Some judges have developed a reputation for favoring mothers over fathers. In Morton County, over 58 percent of custody decisions result in shared parenting. But in Grand Forks, only 28 percent result in shared parenting. This is a variance of over 100 percent. Stutsman County was also relatively favorable to shared parenting. Ward and Stark counties were not.

Why are there such large discrepancies in custody county to county? North Dakota is considered one of the most homogenous states in the country. There’s a reason attorneys ask, “Who’s the judge in your case?” Almost the only perceptible demographics difference between Morton and Grand Forks counties is Grand Forks has more minorities. Morton County is 95.8 percent white. Grand Forks County is 90.3 percent white. Do family court judges in Grand Forks think minority men make less acceptable parents?

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